The debt ceiling has been the only real leverage the GOP has to force some sort of budget reform, but it’s a dangerous weapon. So far the bond markets have been tolerant of the American budget muddle, mainly because there aren’t too many other havens than the U.S. dollar. But that won’t last forever. If the U.S. actually does default, or if the bond markets decide to punish the U.S., it will make future borrowing even more costly, which will drive up deficits even faster. That has very bad ramifications for the American economy, potentially for years after this standoff gets resolved.
By contrast, a government shutdown — or at least the threat of one — makes more sense. For one thing, it actually addresses the problem of government spending by refusing to allocate any more funding, rather than refusing to authorize borrowing for spending already approved. The current continuing resolution runs out on March 27, at which point most functions of the federal government have to stop without approved funding from Congress. John Boehner promised his caucus that he would insist on a return to normal order in the budget process; this would be a perfect time to demand a budget from the Senate instead of getting caught up in White House negotiations intended to bypass the normal budget process yet again. A refusal by Harry Reid would give House Republicans an opportunity to pass a budget without the Senate — and then insist that it’s Reid who shut down the government by violating the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974.
Of course, Republicans remember all too well that they attempted to force a budget victory in 1995 over Bill Clinton with a government shutdown, and ended up losing the political war. That case, however, differed from today in a couple of significant ways. The deficit was much smaller, although still politically potent, and Clinton had already started to triangulate after the 1994 midterm fiasco for Democrats. The budget standoff looked much less like a crisis than a public-relations stunt for the new Contract with America majority. In this case, the crisis is obvious and very potent politically, although not certain by any means to favor Republicans. It will take a great deal of effort to get the messaging started immediately for a March 27 standoff over budgeting for the rest of FY2013, an effort that Republicans haven’t done much in the last two weeks to push.